What makes a good city? For most urban planners would answer the urban fabric- the streets, the blocks, and the buildings. In “Great Streets”, Alan Jacobs, Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, found that good streets have narrow lanes (making them safe from moving cars), small blocks (making them comfortable), and architecturally rich buildings (making them interesting). In the future, the streets will be augmented with advanced monitoring technologies, making the city “smart”. All of these would make a city look great, but do not make the people feel great about their city.
Good and smart street design is important. But what matters is the well-being of the people living in it. It is important to know how people feel in the cities. The article explores the city concepts adapted from “Restorative cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Well-being” as a way to create a feel good city.
Table of Contents
Green and Blue city
Greenery has become part of almost every building that is built today in terms of environmental and psychological concerns. Integrating nature into the city has always been proven to reduce stress and anxiety. The city of Vancouver, with its building policies, is geared toward ensuring that every resident of the city has a decent view of the mountains, ocean, and forest in the north and west.
While we are familiar with the psychological effects of greenery, we are unaware of the factors that determine these effects. For example, the impact of greenery on mental health is modified by the factors such as proximity, amount, quality, and biodiversity- in other words, a large expanse of grass hardly has an impact when compared to a variety of greenery.
At the same time, greenery at even the modest and the most artificial levels such as community gardens, or the unpleasant connotations such as the wild plants in the cemeteries have a positive impact on the mental health and is found to reduce the psychological stress. Even a parkette has a profound impact on mental health. Evidence shows that simple things such as the number of trees planted in the boulevard of the city determine the mental health of its inhabitants.
Thus, a green city is not placing a park at the core of the city or introducing greenery in every building. It is understanding the impact of every factor of greenery on the psychology of people and planning the city according to it.
While the Green city is the buzzword in Urban design, there is hardly any light shed in the blue city. Blue city talks about the impact of water on the cities. Research shows that water, in both natural and artificial environments, has similar psychological effects as greenery.
Designing a neighborly city means encouraging social interactions in daily life. On the contrary, people in larger cities work hard to avoid interaction and even eye contact with strangers. Jennifer Silvershein,a therapist in Manhattan, says when we dissociate in cities, we are choosing things like headphones, that do not bring us down as the noise of the traffic does. We assume that we are focusing on what makes us feel good avoiding the external surroundings that cause stress and discomfort with headphones and phones. But Colin Ellard, Professor of Psychology in the University of Waterloo, says that crowding and noise in the city cause anxiety and lead to poorly regulated emotions.
On the other hand, Dr. Glen Geher, from the study of evolutionary psychology says that “Up until about 10,000 years ago, when agriculture took hold, humans were evolving to have social connections in smaller groups, and life today in big cities doesn’t match those historical conditions”. He also notes that being surrounded by a high proportion of strangers is unnatural and we are fighting this evolutionary mismatch.
Ellard says that while it is important to maintain mental health in an urban setting by using headphones, it is much more important to maintain shallow relationships, i.e. nodding your head as a way of greeting or smiling at someone you recognize. We avoid interactions to keep ourselves safe, but the avoidance harms our mental health and stops us from connecting with the world.
Social isolation is seen to be the major risk factor for the mental health of people. And so, it is crucial to design cities in a way that encourages social connections and relationships. William Walton was the first who advised urban planners to arrange the artifacts and exhibits in the public spaces to nudge people and make them interact with each other. He calls this process “Triangulation”.
Thus, the urban design must promote these shallow social relationships in as many ways as possible- in terms of housing by providing shared spaces, on the sidewalks of the streets by promoting interpersonal relationships, and designing parks that facilitate social interactions.
Assessing the ‘form’ and ‘character’ of the spaces is the standard idea of urban designers in planning. The planning of cities is often restricted to the functional and aesthetic needs of the people. Urban designers mostly conceive cities through their eyes and sight becomes the only sense involved in the design of cities. The sounds, smell, feel of the air, tastes, vibrations, and movements are eliminated from the focus of planning, i.e. we design roads and buildings that are aesthetic and functional but do we consider the crowdedness of the buildings and noise of traffic in the roads in a way that they affect our well-being?
While managing to meet the modern urban needs, we should also need to understand how the places affect our mental well-being, and how a place’s sound, feel, smell, and taste influence the experience of people who spend time in or around it – or simply pass through it. For example, Prof. Collin Ellard’s findings articulate that street-level facade with low complexity shows low interest and pleasure in people, while complex facades have a positive impact on the people.
Pruitt Igoe housing complex, which was built in 1950, with 33 featureless apartment blocks, became a place of crime, squalor, and social dysfunction. Critics argued that the wide-open spaces in between the modern high rises discouraged the sense of community and encouraged crime in the community. They were eventually demolished in 1972. The lack of behavioral insight into the modern buildings of that era led the community to social dysfunction. Thanks to advanced brain studies, we now know how buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being and our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of spaces we live in. Yet, the design of cities tends to stay away from it.
Science is increasingly telling us that there are far more opportunities to leverage the sensory experiences in the city. Research has provided evidence that people’s mental well-being is influenced by “green” surroundings, the presence or absence of other people, the quality of the air being breathed, and other sensory experiences. Thus, a sensory city should have a quiet place, similar to a sonic refuge with fresh air to breathe, streets with interesting and complex facades which evoke curiosity, and sidewalks lined with several trees that keep the pedestrians calm and soothing.
The factor of who cities are designed for tends to be specific, and others who do not fit into it have to rather shape themselves into the city rather than the city shaping their needs. For the people to make the most of the design opportunities, the built environment should be accessible to all, and everyone needs to have a sense of belonging and meaningful access to them.
People living in high-rise apartments have limited access to green spaces and those living in the deprived areas and compact urban areas are devoid of access to greenery. For example, a population of low socio-economic communities in England had been found to have an increased risk of circulatory and cardiac diseases as they were exposed to lesser green areas. The Bike commuters in high-density Mumbai areas said that they are practiced with the traffic and chaos in their daily lives, but the psychological results show them hyper-stressed. Thus, cities must be spatially inclusive so that all spaces in cities have equitable access to everyone to meet their social and psychological needs.
Similarly, public spaces unintentionally exclude a specific group of people. For example, the absence of ramps and designed accessibility excludes the old and physically challenged from the space. Another good example is that men are more likely to cycle and women are deterred by safety concerns. Men often travel to and fro between home and office, and so linear tracks of bikes work well for them. Whereas women travel from place to place, sometimes with a child and so it won’t be a good choice.
Layla Mc Cay says, “Don’t campaign for women to cycle more, rather engage with providing proper lighting at night and redesign infrastructure that is inclusive to women’s needs.” She further says that Co-creation is an important part of equitable cities and inclusiveness does not end in issuing surveys. It is meaningfully bringing people together to think about their needs and to help the design of spaces.
Popularly known, today’s roads are designed for cars instead of people who ride on them. We live in a world where we can’t walk to work or take stairs to the floors. It makes people in cities unhealthy and inactive. An active city, by definition, is one that is continually providing opportunities in the built environments to enable all its citizens to be physically active in day-to-day life.
Human-powered mobility or Active mobility becomes the priority of an Active city. Active mobility is not just about the act of walking or cycling through spaces, but rather about the act of moving, by the act of using spaces, social participation, and influence on city life. It is evident that walking is a conscious mode of transport and it is meant that people will experience their immediate environment with greater depth. It promotes familiarity with the place and makes us feel safe and competent.
It became clear that well-connected areas with high-quality infrastructure have a positive influence on the well-being of residents when walking and lingering. According to brain studies, we could say active mobility in which we use our body physically, lets us easily understand and better remember our surroundings than passive transport in a vehicle.
Mobility is a means to maintain social relationships as it is the way to overcome distances and meet friends. Active mobility fosters this relationship by promoting random encounters which strengthen our connectedness to the people and space around us. So, people feel more connected when they are actively mobile.
Physical activity in public spaces
The increasing challenge in creating an active city is that 90% of our daily lives are spent indoors. As there is a growing attachment to smart devices, cities must encourage and ensure spaces in which people are deactivated from the overstimulated smartphones and become physically active. For example, a city should have places where people gather as a community, engage in physical activities, such as sports, and eat healthy food.
All these said and done, how does a city make us feel good? As said earlier, living among millions of strangers is unnatural to us as humans. To tackle this evolutionary mismatch, we have to make people in the cities feel good. “If you feel positive, you are more likely to speak to a stranger”, says Ellard.
Although many things make people positive, the thing that makes people feel negative about living in a city is the constant feeling of getting lost or disoriented. Kate Jeffery, a behavioral neuroscientist, concludes from her experiment that to feel connected to a place, you need to know how things are related spatially. That is, you need to have a sense of familiarity with the space and a sense of direction in the streets. For instance, the Seattle Central Library, which won multiple awards and is admired by architects, is found to be a notoriously disorienting building.
Dalton says that the longest one-way elevator sweeps the visitors from the ground floor to the upper reaches with no way of descent. And it leaves the people to take a different route when they return. There is no conscious sense of movement in the library, which makes people lost and disoriented when they return to the ground floor. It makes the people confused and leave the building as soon as they find a way to get out. The scenario goes similar to the cities. Cities with no sense of direction and which fail to give a sense of familiarity as home also fail in making people feel good.
The objective of a feel-good city design goes far beyond feel-good aesthetics. The city has diverse needs and the design of a pocket park or a public space in a city would not meet the complexity of human needs. Also, Layla Mc Cay says that there is a tendency to design a single intervention to promote mental health. Designing a city for mental health needs to be part of a wider system approach that includes good access to mental health care, housing, and education, as well as addressing poverty and discrimination.
A feel-good design of cities should explore the relationship between urban design and social psychology using the tools of neuroscience. A smart city with monitoring devices for energy efficiency and safety is acceptable. But, a city should further promote the use of biometric analysis of urban psychology using wearables, sensors, etc. to become really smart. The architects, neuroscientists, and psychologists must agree on the fact that successful design is not so much about how our buildings can shape us, as Churchill had it, but about making people feel they have some control over their environment.